April 26, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia depopulates occupied Ukraine territory, sends in Russian nationals

Institute for the Study of War

April 26, 2023

Russia appears to be continuing a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied areas of Ukraine in order to facilitate the repopulation of Ukrainian territories with Russians. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on April 26 that Russia is trying to change the ethnic composition of Ukraine by actively conducting a large-scale resettlement of people mainly from poorer and remote regions of Russia into Ukraine. Malyar noted that the most intensive efforts are ongoing in occupied Luhansk Oblast and remarked that Russia is also deporting Ukrainians and forcibly resettling them in Russia. ISW previously reported on specific instances of Russian authorities overseeing the depopulation and repopulation of areas of occupied Ukraine, particularly in occupied Kherson Oblast over the course of 2022. Ukrainian sources remarked in October 2022 that Russian authorities in then-occupied parts of Kherson Oblast deported large groups of Ukrainian residents to Russia under the guise of humanitarian evacuations and then repopulated their homes with Russian soldiers. Russia may hope to import Russians to fill depopulated areas of Ukraine in order to further integrate occupied areas into Russian socially, administratively, politically, and economically, thereby complicating conditions for the reintegration of these territories into Ukraine. ISW has previously assessed that such depopulation and repopulation campaigns may amount to a deliberate ethnic cleansing effort and apparent violation of the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut. A video appeal addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin by personnel of the “Potok” PMC (reportedly one of three volunteer detachments from Russian-state owned energy company Gazprom) claims that Gazprom officials told members of “Potok” that they would be signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) but then forced personnel to sign contracts with PMC “Redut.” One Potok soldier claimed that Gazprom created two other units — “Fakel” and “Plamya,” which were attached to the Russian MoD. A Russian milblogger claimed that ”Potok“ is not a PMC, but a BARS (Combat Reserve) unit, however. The ”Potok” personnel also reported poor treatment by Wagner fighters who threatened to shoot ”Potok” personnel if they withdrew from the line of contact. A Wagner fighter claimed in an interview published on April 26 that ”Potok” fighters abandoned Wagner’s flanks at night. A Russian milblogger claimed that “Potok” fighters abandoned their positions in Bakhmut due to a lack of ammunition. ISW previously assessed that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely views the proliferation of PMCs around Bakhmut as competition, and it appears that the increased prevalence of other PMCs around Bakhmut may be causing substantial friction.

The Kremlin continues measures to codify conditions for domestic repression. The Russian Federation Council approved three bills on April 26 which would allow for the deprivation of Russian citizenship for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces and for actions that threaten national security, allow for life sentences for high treason, and allow for five-year sentences for those who promote the decisions of international organizations in which Russia does not participate. ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin has supported laws strengthening punishments for trespassing at facilities run by certain federal bodies, misappropriation of Russian military assets, and discreditation of all Russian personnel fighting in Ukraine to expand pretexts for the arrests of Russian citizens and the removal of officials who have fallen out of favor. The Kremlin is likely setting numerous conditions for domestic crackdowns to give Russian officials to have carte blanche in prosecuting anyone perceived to be against Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s war in Ukraine. The harsh punishments stipulated by these laws likely aim to promote widespread self-censorship amongst the Russian population. ISW has also assessed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be conducting a large-scale overhaul of domestic security organs, and Russian authorities may use these new laws to support these efforts.



Comments made by Russian officials and prominent voices in the Russian information space continue to highlight a pervasive anxiety over potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin remarked on April 26 that as soon as weather conditions improve in Bakhmut, Ukraine will launch a counteroffensive, which may coincide with Russia’s May 9 Victory Day holiday (the commemoration of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945). A prominent Russian milblogger insinuated that Ukraine may be planning counteroffensive actions in order to ruin May 9 celebrations on Russia. The invocations of May 9 suggest that the Russian information space continues to place symbolic importance on dates associated with Russia’s Great Patriotic War, which continues to shape discourse on the prospects of the war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a press conference in New York on April 25 that discussions about the potential for negotiations after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive are ”schizophrenic.” Increasingly despondent and panicked rhetoric emanating from prominent information space figures suggests that the Russian information space has not yet settled on a line about how to address significant and growing concerns about the near future. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are foundational to Ukrainian-Chinese relations in a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Xi’s statement made China’s position on Ukrainian independence clear, rejecting Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye’s April 22 statements that post-Soviet states lack a basis for sovereignty. Both Ukrainian and Chinese government readouts of the call mentioned a possible role China could play in negotiating nuclear issues. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova expressed broad agreement with China’s peace plan and blamed Ukraine for rejecting it. The tepid Russian response to Zelensky and Xi’s call is likely further evidence of Russia’s displeasure at China’s unwillingness to establish a no-limits bilateral partnership. It is not clear that Chinese actions match Chinese rhetoric, however. According to US government statements and investigative journalism reports, China may be providing non-lethal military assistance to Russia.

The Kremlin is likely attempting to reassure Armenia that it is a reliable partner despite the fact that the war in Ukraine is limiting Russia’s ability to play a larger role in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on April 26 in which they reportedly discussed the development of the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh. The brief Kremlin read out for the conversation called for strict compliance with the agreements made by Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani leaders considering the increasing tensions in the Lachin corridor. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on April 26 that Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces Colonel General Alexander Lentsov is the new commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh and will oversee operations at the 30 observation posts that Russian forces operate in the area. The Russian MoD likely announced the appointment to signal to Armenia a commitment to meet Russia peacekeeping responsibilities and to augment Putin’s effort to reassure Pashinyan. 

Key Takeaways

  • Russia appears to be continuing a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied areas of Ukraine in order to facilitate the repopulation of Ukrainian territories with Russians.
  • Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut.
  • The Kremlin continues measures to codify conditions for domestic repression.
  • Comments made by Russian officials and prominent voices in the Russian information space continue to highlight a pervasive anxiety over potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, stating that mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are foundational to Ukrainian-Chinese relations in a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
  • The Kremlin is likely attempting to reassure Armenia that it is a reliable partner despite the fact that the war in Ukraine is limiting Russia’s ability to play a larger role in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Kremlin may attempt to use conscripts to maintain peacekeeping operations in Nagorno Karabakh and preserve relations with Armenia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states.
  • Ukrainian sources reported that Russian forces did not conduct any offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces made gains within Bakhmut and north of Avdiivka.
  • Russian milbloggers continue to argue amongst themselves about Ukrainian activity along the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian authorities have started sending military registration summonses that include threats of “restrictive measures.”
  • Russian sources claimed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) prevented an attempted attack in Crimea.
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